President Obama's speech this week to the West Point grads was for them, their families, the Army they will help lead and the nation they serve. But through much of the hourlong presentation the president seemed to be addressing another large and varied crowd: his critics.
The president made it clear he is keenly aware that many would prefer a foreign policy approach that asserts U.S. interests abroad and projects U.S. power globally with consistency and certitude. He also knows he has other critics, many of them former backers, who will not forgive the continuation of the Guantanamo prison, the troop surge in Afghanistan or the relentless deployment of drones.
But he is far less likely to return fire from his left, at least in public. He aims his rebuttals at those attacking from the right. He knows he won't convert many, but he wants his answers to the indictment on the record, and he is looking to the court of public opinion.
"By most measures, America has rarely been stronger relative to the rest of world," Obama told the corps of cadets. "Those who argue otherwise — who suggest that America is in decline or has seen its global leadership slip away — are either misreading history or engaged in partisan politics."
If there was little surprising in the president's remarks, the reactions from his detractors was just as predictable. GOP Sen. John McCain, whose alternative views on foreign views are well-known, released a crafted one-page statement shortly after the speech. "There is a growing perception worldwide that America is unreliable, distracted and unwilling to lead."
The same message could be heard on Fox News, which cut away during the West Point speech to a live interview with House Armed Services Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon. And neoconservative icon Charles Krauthammer appeared soon after to declare the speech "literally pointless."
Obama's response has several facets. He argues his foreign policy is realistic and restrained. No one country can police the world, nor should it try. Not every violent confrontation demands a military response, or as he put it: "Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail."
He also argues that substantive, sustainable success in foreign matters cannot be achieved by acting alone. We need to be about building coalitions and building consensus. Acting alone and in anger can make problems worse and wider in scope. Negotiating can be a kind of strength, even if it looks to some to be a sign of weakness.
And, finally, the Obama approach shuns the very concept of a doctrine, preferring to take crises on a case-by-case basis.
All of these points are arguable, and each will be endlessly argued. What is not arguable is Obama's ultimate line of defense, which is the alignment of his cautious attitude with the mood of the American public. He knows the nation is deeply disillusioned with foreign wars and moves that seem to lead to such wars.
- When Gallup polled the national response to an American involvement in Syria a year ago, a whopping 68 percent were opposed. Even after news emerged of the use of chemical weapons, a clear majority opposed taking military action.
- Pew Research Center in 2013 found a record high 53 percent of Americans saying the U.S. "should mind its own business internationally." That view had been espoused by just one American in five in 1964.
- The Wall Street Journal and NBC News published a poll last month that summed all this up by simply saying Americans were ready to let the world go by for a while. Nearly half said they wanted the U.S. to be less active in world affairs, versus less than one-fifth who said the country should be more active. The dominant sentiment even crossed party lines, as we have seen with the rise of neo-isolationism among libertarians and conservatives.
America elected Obama in 2008 largely because it was tired of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Watching the slow extraction of U.S. forces from those countries has not changed that, and neither have the painful spectacles of national meltdowns in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.
But it would be a mistake to overestimate the permanence of this turn in American opinion. In the long run, sentiment will change, as it has in the past.
Pearl Harbor ended two decades of isolationist presumption after World War I, and the long hangover from Vietnam gave way to the first Persian Gulf War in 1991 and to the Balkans intervention over Kosovo eight years later. We forgot our aversion to expeditionary wars in an instant after Sept. 11.
As little as we may desire foreign entanglements right now, we remain anxious about national security. We don't want to be so removed from world affairs that we invite confrontations down the road. We don't want to be so unentangled that we get caught unawares, as happened with Pearl Harbor in World War II or with the German U-boats before World War I. We don't want "the smoking gun" to come in the form of "a mushroom-shaped cloud" — a neat bit of speechwriting that helped George W. Bush convince Congress we needed to invade Iraq. That is how we came to the war Barack Obama inherited in 2009.
From a purely political standpoint, the last thing this president wants to do is leave Hillary Clinton or another Democratic nominee a foreign war to defend in 2016. In this he clearly stands with the people. But even this final line of defense has a limit.
We want to save money but we fear "gutting the military," as Pentagon defenders such as McKeon constantly warn we are doing. We can imagine seeing the U.S. so reduced in stature as to invite greater and graver challenges in the future.
The memories of Iraq and Afghanistan and Vietnam are cautionary. But so are the memories of World War II. That is the essential conundrum with which each president in our time must grapple.